What is Emotional Dysregulation?

Amy V. Smith, MS, LMHC, NCC
Registered Play Therapist


What is emotional dysregulation?

As a counselor I am often asked by clients, “Why am I all of the sudden so tired?”  Parents wonder what the heck is going on when their child starts crawling on the floor, jumping on the couch, or acting in a way that may seem out of the norm for their child. Some clients are nervous that they are “checked out” and “can’t focus”. When this happens, I am grateful to educate my clients about what’s going on.


What’s happening is emotional dysregulation. What does this mean, you may be asking? It simply means you are out of your comfort zone. Dysregulation is when you begin to feel like you are shutting down, ramping up, anxious, sluggish, angry, or losing track of time. It means you are still in control but don’t feel comfortable. We can function in this state.


When you feel out of control, you are in arousal. Arousal means you are shut down or in panic mode. You can’t function in this state. Being in a state of arousal is not something that you choose, it’s something that happens to you. Your body takes over! There are two types of arousal:


Hyper-arousal– During hyper-arousal you may experience increased heart rate, pounding sensation in your head, hyper-vigilance, extreme anxiety, aggression, disorganization, uncontrollable bouts of rage

Hypo-arousal is when you feel helpless, tired, numb, a dulled capacity to feel significant events, inability to set boundaries, zoned out, frozen


According to Lisa Dion, the founder of Synergetic Play Therapy, “All systems of dysregulation arise out of mis-perceptions of the events in our lives. When we change our perceptions, we change the symptoms in our nervous system.”  She believes, and I agree, “It is wise to master the art of how to change our perceptions and how to manage the symptoms that arise in our bodies to help us return to a more regulated state.”  Have you ever felt panic and said to yourself, “I’m having a heart attack.” Did you notice how your panic symptoms increased based on your perception? I often teach my clients who are in panic to say something like this, “I have dealt with this before”, “this is uncomfortable, but I have made it through in the past.” These changes in perception help a client work from arousal back to dysregulation and eventually to regulation.


When someone is dysregulated, there are ways to help regulate the system. Lisa says, “It is wise to do these activities pro-actively, as well as in moments of dysregulation. It is also important to follow the body’s innate wisdom back to a regulated/ventral state. These activities are important to be done alone AND with someone.”


Here are some of the things my clients have found helpful to bring them back to a regulated state: journaling, yawning (this works for me), deep breathing, take a bath or shower, read, go for a walk, hug self, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, run, exercise, chew gum, use a stress ball, talk about it, get a massage, wash face, and draw. These are just some ideas; the possibilities are endless. What works for one may not work for another, so just keep trying to find what works for you.


If you or someone you know struggles to regulate, you are not alone. The counselors at Life Skills Resource Group are able to help you find the tools to regulate that will work for you. Through trial and error you can learn to embrace dysregulation and use it to work for you. Remember, as Lisa Dion says, “When we change our perceptions, we change the symptoms in our nervous system.”  Please feel free to give the office a call today and any of the counselors in our office can help you on this journey.  Phone consultations are always free.  407-355-7378

Amy Smith